Male companionship—Bromance—rooted in deep connection and emotional intimacy is still quite rare, probably because our rigid concept of masculinity prevents men from forming authentic non-romantic relationships with each other.
By: Thanduxolo ‘Thandz’ Buti
Main Image: Micah West (Nicholas Ashe) and Isaiah (Marquis Rodriguez) on Queen Sugar (OWN)
One day, while having coffee with a male friend, we talked about male companionship—bromance—and questioned whether it truly existed. As a Black man, I have little exposure to bromance relationships with emotional intimacy. In my society, most male companionships appear to be rooted in shared experiences and extramural activities (sports, nightlife life and proximity) rather than deep emotional ties.
Unlike our female counterparts who can be BFFs (Best Friends Forever) and form emotional attachments with one another, bromance is stigmatized and often (in a homophobic sense) linked to queerness. The idea of having an emotional non-romantic relationship with another man remains a feminine concept.
In recent years, a few Black shows have tried to address the concept of bromance in the Black community. The drama Queen Sugar (OWN), Season 7 (2021) did an exceptional job of illustrating the difficulty in establishing and maintaining bromances in the Black community.
The character of Micah West, who is struggling with PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) after experiencing multiple instances of police brutality, meets fellow freshman Isaiah while having a panic attack on campus. Through these experiences, they form a deep relationship, centered on brotherhood, which offers a safe space for Micah to be vulnerable. But their closeness and bond draws eyes, and soon, they are faced with rumours of a queer relationship.
Confused, Micah shares with his aunt, Nova Bordelon, his mixed feelings about the relationship.
Micah: “I have a friend at school who is probably the best friend I’ve ever had. Just like, what you would think of when you think of a best friend. What we’d want in a relationship: the camaraderie, the trust.
“But…something has come up in the friendship that’s been unexpected. It’s…intimacy. You know, not like sex or romance, just intimacy of emotion. I want to tell him everything.
“I – I want to hang with him all the time. I just feel genuinely connected to him. And some people have noticed that…and I let that change the relationship because…”
Nova: “Because you wonder what the intimacy means.“
Micah: “Yeah, like straight up, am I gay? Am I fluid? These all-new thoughts for me.”
Micah also has a conversation with Isaiah after trying to avoid him while trying to deal with conflicted feelings. Isaiah educates him about the difficulty of having an intimate non-romantic relationship with a male friend in society.
Isaiah: “I don’t want anything from you, Micah. I never did,” he tells him. “Nothing except to be your friend…your brother. But society tells us that men can’t love each other that way.
“Women can be best friends, they can hold hands, and they can declare love for each other, but we can’t. You know, and if we do, then we must be gay.”
Micah’s storyline is a good example of how relationships between men often rest at the surface level, making it difficult for most men to form deep connections with each other.
I spoke to clinical psychologist and researcher, Anele Siswana, about bromance in the South African context. He believes that the concept of bromance has always existed in our Black communities.
‘It [bromance] is captured in men’s daily practice of greeting and acknowledging closeness in words such as “bafo” in isiZulu; “mfo’ wethu”, “mntak’ wethu” in isiXhosa and many other African languages. All of these locate us to the closeness of brotherhood,’ he explains.
“Simply put bromance is a close, friendly interaction between two men who really love each other but this is not a sexual relationship. This construct goes beyond sexual orientation and gender but rather two men who are genuinely drawn into each other’s worlds.
“This means, there is a close bond and a beautiful loving and compassionate relationship between these two men. What is beautiful about bromance is it finds its expression in the trust and safety of the relationship which creates a safe place for vulnerability.”
Siswana also shares that oftentimes, the concept of bromance is misconstrued in society, resulting in scepticism, especially from other men. This results in many not having a safe emotional outlet and being detached emotionally.
“Men tend to bond around experiences, not talking about feelings.” Adds Siswana. “This suggests that men do not like to expose and to unpack how they feel about their life experiences especially when they go through a hard time.
“There may be some truth in this, particularly with the older generations with more traditional perspectives on masculinity. Ideas of hegemonic masculinity (“the dominant masculine ideal of a given culture”) suggest problematic notions that inhibit men from sharing and expressing themselves.
“Bromance is then mistaken for men who are physically intimate because they share something deeper than ordinary friendship. This is where some people are likely to confuse it with men who may be attracted to each other but find it hard to express that.
“Now I imagine the reaction when a straight (heterosexual man) has a bromance with a gay man. Ideally, one would find it hard to understand the fine line between a romantic relationship between two men and bromance.”
Men also struggle with deep connections and emotional intimacy because of toxic masculinity and cultural ideas that prevent them from embracing affection and vulnerability. In most cultures, emotions are still considered a feminine concept and viewed as a sign of weakness and queerness. Siswana also notes the way men are socialized and nurtured results in their inability to engage in emotional deep connections.
“There is a social construct that often suggests that somehow being male comes with a cost of being un-emotional – “Boys do not cry”. However, in my view, you can never gender emotions. Secondly, it is social expectations that expect men to suppress and repress their emotional side.
“Most importantly, there are also unconscious traumas and background influences. Studies in psychology indicate that some men who have experienced childhood trauma or toxic relationships, have certain attachment styles (specifically avoidant attachment and fearful attachment) and find it harder to connect to others.”
In some instances, culture and society promote brotherhood, but also put limitations to it. The term ‘my brother’s keeper’ is meant to celebrate and promote brotherhood, but while boys are encouraged to safeguard each other, there is an unspoken fine line they must not cross. Siswana says this falls into the hegemonic masculinity category and suggests that cultural background and community greatly influence male companionships.
“Community is a space of belonging and men tend to create their communities by organizing social gatherings (sports clubs, shisanyama, car wash and music events), which mostly fall into what’s considered manly activities.
“The role of culture in how men do companionship is also cultivated through initiation rituals. For example, Xhosa men undergo Ulwaluko (male initiation). One of the major lessons during initiation school is interdependence amongst new men and creating a sense of brotherhood. It is through this practice that meaningful relations are created as spaces of safety. The terms ‘iqabane’ and ‘saluka’ highlight the importance of male companionship.”
It’s important to note that Black relationships are very complex by nature. They often lack affection and intimacy, resulting in many growing up and recreating those attachment styles. The most popular love language in our society is financial love. As a result, many are incapable of telling and showing love outside of that and fail to create a safe space to vocalize or express love and affection.
Siswana says most Black relationships are deficiency-focused and reinforce negative stereotypes about Black people’s sexual, romantic and non-romantic relationships.
“These stereotypes need to be challenged as they position Black bodies as emotionally incapacitated beings with less interest in healthy relationships. Being relational and communal with deeper connections is an African construct, which suggests that we gravitate towards emotionally fulfilling relationships. In fact, in South Africa, we believe in meaningful relationships that offer space for empathy and deep connections expressed in various forms.”
In this age where many men are suffering in silence from depression, bromance could play an important role in offering a space for men to unload emotionally. However, our rigid concept of masculinity is forcing men to suffer in isolation which most often leads to depression.
According to a 2019 report by WHO (World Health Organization), 13 774 suicides were reported in SA and 10 861 of those were men. The report showed that men were four times more likely to commit suicide than women.
Creating more safe spaces where men can begin to open up about their emotions can help men deal with depression. Male companionship has been cited as a great tool to get men to open up without fear of judgment.
According to the 2017 study Privileging the Bromance: A Critical Appraisal of Romantic and Bromantic Relationships (Stefan Robinson, Adam White Adam and Eric Anderson) from the University of Bedfordshire, which examined undergraduate men’s experiences with bromance; the participants found that bromances offered emotional stability.
“We find that the increasingly intimate, emotive, and trusting nature of bromances offers young men a new social space for emotional disclosure, outside of traditional heterosexual relationships,” reveals the study.
“Our participants mostly determined that a bromance offered them elevated emotional stability, enhanced emotional disclosure, social fulfilment, and better conflict resolution, compared to the emotional lives they shared with girlfriends.”
Siswana believes that bromance relationships have a positive impact on society as they shift the narrative of #MenAreTrash to a more emotionally engaged community of men. “It also opens up an opportunity of engaging with positive and healthy masculinities, particularly in Black communities.”
As a society, we must combat any form of toxic masculinity and stereotypes around masculinity. We need to evolve as a people and find new ways to raise and socialize our men so we can create a new generation of men who are in tune with their emotions and are not afraid of affection and vulnerability.
“We need to foster self-care and self-love among men,” adds Siswana. “It is crucial to redefine masculinity by adopting a modern, integrative perspective that encourages self-care without fear of judgment or rejection. By challenging and redefining these societal norms we can help men feel more comfortable prioritising their well-being. This transformation is not only essential for individual growth but also for promoting healthier relationships and communities.”
Mental health help:
To seek professional help contact:
SADAG (The South African Depression and Anxiety Group) on 0800 567 567
24hr Emergency Helpline: 0800 12 13 14
SMS 31393 (and they will call you back)
Lifeline – National Counselling
0861 322 322 (24 hours/ 7 days a week)